9th Grade: The Church Muddies the Waters


Last week we looked at Henry II and his challenge to the independence of the Church, and to feudal order in general.

A generation later, Frederick II (1194-1250) mounted a similar, somewhat more successful assault on the Church.  The mighty Pope Innocent III opposed him, but in this instance, Frederick prevailed for the most part.

By inheritance and marriage, Frederick inherited a huge amount of territory.  He had the possibility of ruling over both the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Sicily.  You can see on the map the amount of territory he potentially could control (the big orange blob in the middle, including central-southern Italy and Sicily itself)

This fact in itself posed a threat to the Church’s vision for Europe.  The Church wanted to create a Christian community in Europe where people’s primary identity would be “Christian,” and not “English,” or “French.”  Concentration of power might mean that a ruler could challenge that general identity.  Too much power might result in more conflict as other states challenged or resisted that power.  Frederick’s vast holdings by definition challenged the Church’s concept of Europe, but also the feudal concept of everyone sticking to their own ‘sphere’ of influence.  Quite simply, he had too many slices of the pie to himself.

Frederick II with Al Kamil MuhammadSome called Frederick, “The Wonder of the World.”  He imported animals from exotic places and created the first zoo in Europe.  He wrote the standard manual for the sport of hawking, a medieval sport that required a great deal of patience and careful observation.  He spoke many languages, even Arabic, and often conversed with Moslem scholars.

Others called him, “The Anti-Christ.”  He founded the first university in Europe that was distinctly secular in nature.   Various popes consistently opposed him, and eventually Frederick struck back, murdering 120 bishops en route to a church council Frederick believed would rule against him.  Pope Innocent IV declared war on Frederick.  When some of Frederick’s subjects rebelled, Frederick turned ruthless, putting captured rebels in burlap sacks with poisonous snakes, and throwing them into the river.

The Pope eventually called off the war against him, though Frederick died shortly after and so could not savor the fruits of his ‘victory.’  Frederick’s reign reveals that the Medieval synthesis had cracks, cracks that would widen into the next century.  By choosing to oppose Frederick, the Church had to wade even further into politics than they usually did.  They spent a lot of their moral capital doing this, and failed in the attempt.  In the next few weeks we will see the ripple effects of this as the Church’s hold over society weakened.

The “successful” challenge of Frederick did not just have to do with Frederick, but with the Church’s own actions at the time.  In all ages the Church must decide the extent to which it should enter the political arena in order to try and achieve some common good.  If you accept Augustine’s interpretation of the world as “The City of Man,” this always involves risk.  What can or should be done in order to influence “the good” in a purely political sense?  For example, in Frederick’s youth his relatives Otto and Philip fought a civil war over the power inherent in his throne.  Pope Innocent III waded into the controversy, wanting to obtain the best possible advantage he could for the Church and the territorial integrity of the Papal States.  He initially supported Otto, who pledged not to extend his power into Sicily should he win.  But when the war’s events showed that Otto would lose, Innocent III switched his allegiance to Philip, hoping at the last moment to salvage something.  But then Philip died, leaving Otto the winner by default.  Innocent III switched his allegiance again back to Otto, whereby Otto reneged on his original deal and marched his armies into Sicily after all while Innocent stood by helpless.  I think Innocent III had good intentions, but the proof is in the pudding — he was way out of his league, and the prestige of the Church suffered.  It appeared to be one political faction among many, and a losing one at that.

Next week we will have some fun with medieval medicine.